I know this title is a bit misleading, but this is the same as I’ve done for the past ten years. These are my favorite books I read in 2018. Most of them were not published in 2018.
Best Literary Fiction:
Less by Andrew Sean Greer
The novel opens with Less as a failed novelist, whose lover of nine years has just invited him to his wedding to a different man. The way Less tries to avoid the wedding is to accept invitations to speak around the world at events no prominent novelist would be caught dead at.
The problems of Less have to do with heartbreak and aging and figuring out what makes a life worth living and being remembered and finding love. These are timeless issues found in great art throughout history.
The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
The Name of the Rose isn’t a historical work or pure fiction or a mystery novel or postmodernist metafiction or theology. It draws on a bunch of sources and amalgamates them to a strange hybrid a reader from any of these backgrounds could appreciate on a different level.
The Gunners by Rebecca Kauffman
This was quite good. It’s nothing new or groundbreaking, but it’s a theme well worth revisiting. A life is more than the sum of its parts.
We all feel guiltier than we are. We all think we play a bigger role in other lives than we do. We can never know another self fully. Some things will forever be a mystery, and that’s okay. Secrets almost always cause more problems than you think they will. People are cruel. People are unbelievably kind.
The most interesting aspect was how the novel kept circling back to a few key events from different points of view to reveal more and more.
Mystic River by Dennis Lehane
Mystic River has incredible depth to it. The atmosphere of the neighborhood plays a big role. Each of the characters has a history with the others. In the first few pages, we get a horrific scene that carries on thirty years later to create guilt and pain between two of the main characters.
The characters are all deeply flawed, and one of the best parts of the novel is to see how small mistakes can escalate quickly into terrible, life-changing moments through perfectly understandable overreactions.
Best Book on Writing:
The Anatomy of Story by John Truby
I’ve always thought of books like The Story Grid to be the gold standard on macroscopic elements of story. I’ve reconsidered my opinion.
This is the book all people should use in constructing an organic and compelling story. This teaches the essential elements without using a strict formula like other methods that follow the hero’s journey a bit closer.
Truby’s method is the way to go for original construction of a story with a character-centric focus.
Remembrance of Earth’s Past (full trilogy) by Liu Cixin
The trilogy is truly an “ideas” book. It’s kind of fascinating how strong the ideas alone were to keep me wanting to read. The plot definitely waned at points and character motivations were weak, but I didn’t really care.
The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin is unlike anything I’ve read before. It’s pretty difficult to explain why, because I don’t want to spoil anything. Part of the fun of this trilogy is that there are M. Night Shyamalan type twists (things that make you rethink everything that happened before and make it all make sense).
When these types of plot twists happen once at the end of a book or movie, it feels like a cheap gimmick and can be off-putting. When they happened dozens of times across this book trilogy, they left me in awe of the structure of the narrative.
You’ll think you’ve finally got a grasp on things near the end of Book 2, and then you learn that you had no idea what was really going on. As I said, there are dozens of these, and each time you think it can’t happen again, it somehow does.
I can’t recommend this trilogy enough if you’re into hard sci-fi.
Deadhouse Gates by Steven Erikson
This is a tough one. There were times I couldn’t put it down; there were times I couldn’t pick it up.
Overall, Erikson is one of the best writers I’ve ever read. This universe is richly detailed, the characters well-drawn, and so much about it is completely original (none of the standard copying Tolkien but then change a few things to pretend like you didn’t).
The best novels take effort to read, but this has so many characters, many of whom don’t intersect the first book in the series.
But I’ve put it on this list for a reason. I think it’s worth the effort now that I’ve spent several months away from it. I will definitely be reading the third book in the series next year.
The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher
I read at least three in this series this year. They somehow keep getting better. The formula has become a bit predictable: take traditional story monsters like zombies or vampires or necromancers or whatever.
Each novel has a different one. Place this in modern-day Chicago. Hilarious chaos ensues.
What makes them so compelling is the premise of a modern-day wizard detective with all the hard-boiled tropes. Magical occurrences cause deaths in the real world. Most people don’t believe the magical part. The tension and fascinating worldbuilding Butcher creates to keep this alive is great.
They are also genuinely funny with recurring gags. They are light, fast reads. This makes you want to keep going from one to the next.
Certainly, the first few weren’t great, but all of the ones I read this year deserve a mention on this list.